Do You Have Health Insurance?

By Songyi Zhang

Last winter was brutal for me. I wasn’t quite ill, but I did have to battle a persistent rash on my lips, making them sore, red, swollen. For the first time, I consulted with doctors outside the university clinic. As soon as I stepped up to the reception desk at a walk-in clinic, I’m asked, “Do you have health insurance?”

The receptionist, in her thirties, gazed upon her computer screen after her routine greeting.

“Yes,” I fished out my health insurance card from my wallet.

“Is this your first time here?” the receptionist glanced at me as if my response had confirmed in her mind that I am a responsible patient.


“Fill out this form and bring it back with your health insurance and ID.”

After doing what I was instructed, I waited for my turn. The receptionist examined my information carefully. In her hand were my health insurance card and driver’s license. I wondered what would happen if I did not have health insurance.

I am an alien in this country. I don’t benefit from the rights that an American citizen does. But I do and must pay taxes like all Americans do. Likewise, I must obey the laws in this country. And my actions are restricted by the state laws or even the city regulations. As for health insurance, its importance to me as an alien is no less than that to every American.

In my first year of studying in Pittsburgh, I did not use my health insurance at all. I even questioned whether I needed to pay hundreds of dollars to the insurance company for an empty record of claims. However, applying for health insurance is mandatory for all students in my university. My godparent emphasizes more than once that it’s a must to have health insurance in America for the sake of my benefit. “Health care is expensive here,” he said. “Without health insurance the bill will burden you more painfully than your illness.”

Isn’t this the case in China, too? In recent years, local governments have initiated various medical reforms to ensure all citizens are protected while the medical system remains profitable.

Over the last few weeks, not only did I consult with the doctor twice on my rash, I also visited the CVS pharmacy and an ophthalmologist. Each time the receptionist’s first question was, “Do you have health insurance?”

At Home With War: A Vietnam Veteran Goes To The Movies

by John Samuel Tieman

We all watch for fire
for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
it could resurrect us all.

— Joy Harjo, In Mad Love And War


So a colleague says, “You’re a veteran. What are your favorite war movies?”

I am alternately drawn to, and disturbed by, war movies. But it’s not for the reasons a lot of people think. A lot of folks think that a war movie, verisimilitude notwithstanding, can never depict war. I’m an artist. I don’t ask the artifact to be the war. I just ask the art to give meaning to witness.

I don’t like most war movies, because there is nothing transcendent. All they do is remind me that, when I was a soldier, I was violent. On the other hand, I find the violent fantasy arousing. I miss my M-16. There’s nothing transcendent about that. It’s disturbing.

Here’s what I like. Some of the best war movies are not about war. They are about coming home from war. They are about finding meaning in witness. That’s what I like.

What follows is personal, my likes, my dislikes. I will illustrate this not by talking about whole movies, but by centering upon great scenes.



When this movie came out in 1986, I saw it six times. It was the first time I saw a movie that looked and sounded like Vietnam. Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran.

In The Nam, he also learned something about the meaning of evil. Stone ends the movie with Chris Taylor, the central character, saying, “I think now, looking back on it, that we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” The movie was, in some quarters, criticized for what was perceived as moral ambiguity. Taylor, however, learns that there is nothing morally ambiguous about the fact he, the soldier, has to kill – and I mean to kill anyone at all. Taylor finishes by saying that we need “to teach to others what we know, and to try, with what’s left of our lives, to find a goodness and meaning to this life.”

There is the one other scene that I love. That’s the scene where The Heads are in a bunker smoking dope. My war buddies and I had such a bunker. There is a camaraderie known to those who have shared danger,. Too much can be made of that comradeship, and too often in movies it is clichéd. Stone spares us the sentimental. So, when I see this scene, hear that music, I think of our bunker and The Heads I knew.


The Best Years Of Our Lives

Here’s your trivia question. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946? It’s A Wonderful Life? Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V? Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the 1944 Somerset Maugham novel?

No. The movie that won is the movie that 16 million returning veterans wanted to see, The Best Years Of Our Lives, the movie about three guys readjusting to civilian life.

Harold Russell won two Academy Awards for the same role. Russell plays Homer Parrish, a disabled ex-sailor. While serving as a paratrooper, Russell in fact lost both hands.

In what could be called a reverse bedroom scene, Homer’s fiancée, Wilma, played by Cathy O’Donnell, comes by to break their engagement. Wilma is reluctant to leave Homer, but her parents want to send her away. “I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don’t want you tied down forever just because you’ve got a kind heart,” Homer tells her.

He tells her further that she really doesn’t know what she’s getting into. “I’m going upstairs to bed. I wantcha — I want ya to come up and see for yourself what happens.”

She follows Homer to his bedroom. He takes off his pajama top with surprising dexterity. Then he stands before her, his harness and hooks displayed. He wiggles out of the harness, and tosses it on the bed. With his left stub, he points to the harness and says, “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” To her credit, she marries him.

There are a couple of things that make this scene powerful. Russell, in a sense, isn’t acting. “This is when I know I’m helpless.” He speaks for almost all war veterans, the wounded and the whole. Why? Almost all war veterans, the occasional sociopath notwithstanding, are psychically wounded. This woundedness is compounded frequently by a feeling of isolation. Homer is luckier than most. He is able to share his pain with Wilma.


A seemingly odd choice. But there’s this old joke among war vets. Do you know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts, “Once upon a time,” and a war story starts, “Now this here ain’t no bullshit.”

I love a great story. And every war vet has at least one story that, as the bard says, “would harrow up thy soul.”

I mention this movie because of one scene only, a great scene, a story told by Quint, the captain of the ship that chases the shark. Amid much drinking aboard his vessel, Quint recalls the 1945 sinking of his cruiser, the U. S. S. Indianapolis. Quint spent four days in the water waiting for rescue. Hundreds around him were eaten by sharks. For Quint, hunting sharks is all about his war. It is his way to revisit his trauma, and this time, hopefully, fix it.

Quint’s mesmerizing tale is based upon a true story. Of 1,196 folks aboard the cruiser, only 316 survived. And, yes, hundreds, by sharks. And this here ain’t no bullshit.

Robert Shaw, who played Quint, completely rewrote the monologue, which director Steven Spielberg came to regard as one of the the best scenes he ever shot. Originally, mention of the Indianapolis was just a passing reference to Quint’s familiarity with sharks.


Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I love Peter Sellers. But, when it comes to this movie, I’m a Slim Pickens fan. As Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, Pickens rides a hydrogen bomb like some nuclear bronco, smacking it with his cowboy hat until the scene flashes to stark white.

There is an absurdity to war that this scene captures. A war buddy of mine, Dick Bittner, used to talk about “a cartoon”, some absurd scene going on right in the middle of a war. Like the time my buddies were asked to paint artillery shells as they were being fired. The artillery guys kept objecting that paint was getting all over their hands and the howitzer, but, hey, orders are orders. Then there was the time an army band was sent into the field to play “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”, this while dignitaries, generals and such, ate finger sandwiches, drank wine, and watched an air strike kill Viet Cong. It is as if, in the search for meaning, existential absurdity itself reminds us that it’s one option.


All Quiet On The Western Front – any version

In the most painfully stark scene of a painfully stark film, the German soldier Paul, the main character, stabs a French soldier. He dies slowly. Because of the fire overhead, Paul is then trapped in a shell hole while his mortally wounded enemy groans — all night.

Paul learns the identity of the man. Gerard Duval. A printer. Paul even learns his address, and vows to write Duval’s wife and child. It’s personal.

War is personal Perhaps the greatest lie of any war is that the enemy is not human, that the enemy is not like us. War is always personal. A North Vietnamese war poet once said that, when he aimed his rifle, he aimed first at the heart of that soldier’s mother.


Paths Of Glory

Platoon begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes. “Rejoice, oh young man, in thy youth.” When I was in Nam, Chuck Willis’ nickname was “Pop”. He was 24. With all respect to the professional soldier, and the occasional old coot, war is associated with youth. And old veterans looking back on what they were, and what they’ve become because of war.

Paths of Glory, a 1957 film by Stanley Kubrick, takes place during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the French commanding officer of three brave soldiers, who refused to continue a suicidal attack. Dax defends them against a charge of cowardice. They are court-martialed and executed. Their own comrades are forced to shoot them.

In the final scene of the movie, a young woman in a tavern begins to sing a German folk song. The soldiers are at first hostile, and the viewer can easily anticipate rape. But the hardened troops instead end up humming along, some openly weeping, as she sings “The Faithful Hussar”. They weep for what they have become.


“For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…” Wasn’t that what Henry V said? I used to wonder about this good old boy I used to see at a V. F. W. hall. He was a physician at the St. Louis University hospital. But, during World War II, he was a pharmacist’s mate on a submarine. Once a month, he’d meet-up with his old shipmates. Working men. I used to wonder about that. The physician and the plumber.

I went to a reunion of my Nam unit, the 4th Infantry Division. I always avoided these things, but this time the 4th was meeting here, my hometown. I spent the evening talking to a guy who, today, is a crane operator. The Ph. D. and the high school dropout.

And what draws us together? Memories. A few laughs. A terrible knowledge. And while art cannot replicate the experience, it can, in fact, give that knowledge meaning. As for the experience per se, that’s what reunions are for.

As for the movies. Why are so many good war movies really coming home movies?

There are a lot of other movies I could mention. Born On The 4th Of July. The Deer Hunter. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. Coming Home. Or, for that matter, Rambo. My point is this. It took me a lot of therapy to learn a simple truth. I will never recall The Nam and not be sad. But I don’t hate the army. I hate what I became because of war. Sometimes art, for an hour or two, gives that a meaning.


Toward Educational Reform: Being A Dissertation On Cost-Cutting, Time Management And Broken Locks

by Publius

Samantha got locked in her classroom with thirty-three students. Since most of the janitors have been laid off as a cost-saving device, it was hard to find anyone who knew what to do. Aside from that thirty-four folks instantly needing to pee, Samantha’s problem was that her class was like an annual plenary session of the Future Crips Of America Association. The administration’s solution was to slide grammar worksheets under the door.

Art, the art teacher, is taking a day off work in order to get some work done. I have two feelings about that. One, that I actually have a job where ‘taking a day off work in order to get some work done’ makes sense. Two, that we’re into some strange areas here.

We’re doing the educational equivalent of working two jobs with one worker. We each teach seven classes. We’re working double-periods, the idea being to stuff twice as much material in one class. We get one break every other day. On days we don’t get a break, we’re expected to go from, say, 8AM until 1PM without a break even to pee. We get 25 minutes for lunch. I once worked in a warehouse, and had a 15 minute break in the morning, 30 minutes for lunch, and a 15 minute break in the afternoon.

In order to save money, the district has gotten rid of almost all teaching assistants and substitute teachers. So, when someone is sick, teachers have to give up what few free periods we have. Of the three periods I have free in a week, I gave up two last week in order to sub, and two the week before. Leaving me two breaks in two weeks. Someone once said that, if you’re a good teacher, you go home tired every night. I must be the best teacher in the world.

And there’s always at least one class to sub for. Since we had two music teachers, the district decided to fire one. So they fired the instrumentalist, leaving only the voice teacher. Instruments and their upkeep are expensive. And everyone has a voice. Again, cost cutting. But nobody rearranged the schedule for the kids. The kids don’t cost anything, which makes them an afterthought. So the band kids meet every day, and everyday there’s no teacher, so everyday those kids need a sub. And there’s never a sub. So one of us has to watch those poor children. I can cry when I see these poor babies. What does it say to a kid, that this child is unworthy of a teacher?

So Art, the art teacher, is taking a day off work in order to get some work done. He needs time to grade some projects, time he can’t find at work. He just doesn’t have enough time at work in order to do all his work. He’s left a lesson that can easily be supervised by a non-art substitute teacher — but a real sub, which he insisted on getting.

And that’s how we juggle it. Leave a good lesson that can be done by someone not certified in the subject. We make sure there’s a real sub, and not just one of our overworked colleagues, and take a day off work in order to get some work done.

The problem is — we’re getting into some strange areas. Taking off work in order to do work? And we all do it. That and we work weekends.

We are an oppressed profession. The other art teacher, Guadalupe, is ready to quit. She’s young and, like all of us, came here to work with the poor and the immigrant and the marginalized. She expected to work with poverty, mental illness, even violence. But nobody is prepared for a brow-beating administration, the incompetence of uplifting liberals and condescending conservatives, the millions spent on reforms that only make our classrooms worse, the distance we feel from those who write about us but don’t know us, or the cost-cutting that leaves people locked in a room for lack of a guy who can undo a hinge. We can attract idealists. We just can’t hold them.

So I say to Guadalupe what has become my mantra. “If not you, then who?” Everyone has some grand reform for the public schools, but nobody wants to come and work in them. And stay. In the end, to these kids, to my colleagues, that’s all that matters.

You want reform? You want cost-cutting? Give me a xerox machine that works and a text book. Then leave me alone. That is all I need. Why? Because I am a one man educational reform. That and unlock Samantha and those kids.

The Last Supper

by Publius

Today is the last day of school.

I planned on getting some pizzas delivered to my classroom. A gift for my students. But not a single pizza place will deliver to our neighborhood. Not one.

I really feel bad about this. I explain it to the kids. They understand. But I’m still hurt. I say, ‘I’m always hollering at you to sit down, hollering at you to shut up, do the assignment. For once, I just wanted to do something nice.’

Given what these kids know about life, they expect things to go wrong. But they were pleased by my effort and, in the end, were happy just to party.

They pulled up their desks next to mine. And with abandon, we dined on a haute cuisine of cake, nachos, soda and laughter.


The News

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Two days ago I was at a local coffee house replenishing our supply of dark roast. I placed the order and handed my empty bag to the young woman behind the counter. She handed it back to me a few minutes later; as she tapped the bag, then folded and smoothed the worn paper, we exchanged pleasantries about the afternoon’s sunny weather which was at that very moment shifting to storm.

Flood warning, I said. She hadn’t heard or read any news that day and, by way of explanation, fixed me with a worn look as she shrugged: ‘There’s just too much bad news out there right now,’ she said.

Like so many of us I had spent much of the day reading the changing headlines and the stories attached: the crises in the Middle East, more Afghanistan, and the devastation in Japan. Mostly I had focused on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, on the reactors’ failure, the possible plume of radiation that sent so many folks in my hometown of Sacramento on a search for iodine pills that they exhausted the city’s supply.

Japan is close to home for us; we have a large Japanese community in our city and we too live in earthquake country. We also have three defunct nuclear reactors nearby, which, when operative, developed a series of problems now considered to be the third-most significant nuclear safety occurrence in the U.S. [Wikipedia] The plant, which opened in 1977, was shut down after a decisive vote in a 1989 special referendum. A poet here, Martha Ann Blackman, had a lot to do with Rancho Seco’s closure. (She has a poem about the process called ‘It Only Took Ten Years’ in her recent chapbook from Rattlesnake Press, The Leaves on the Caring Tree.) Here is an excerpt from her bio on Medusa’s Kitchen http://medusaskitchen.blogspot:

[Blackman] was a spokesperson for Sacramentans for SAFE Energy (SAFE), the local grass-roots group that qualified the initiative for a public vote on shutting down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant — the only nuclear power plant in the world that’s been shut down in this way. Martha says, ‘This is especially relevant because it was a poem I wrote that caused me to get involved in the ten years I spent trying to get the nuke shut down.’

Here is a case for how both a poet and a poem can and did change the world.

No Money, No Talk

By Songyi Zhang

Recently before the arrival of the notorious tax deadline—April 15—in America, when I tuned in to Pittsburgh’s WDUQ and WQED radio stations, I heard the announcers keep asking audience to make a pledge for the stations. It was their winter membership campaign. So instead of the daily non-stop music and news on the radio, the programming became a platform for endless solicitation.

I was quite disturbed. All I wanted is my normal favorite program on the radio while doing morning exercises. The call-now-and-support-your-one-and-only-station-in-Pittsburgh type of talk really irritated me, as if they were the pestering advertisements about the cure for sexual diseases in the Chinese radio air.

Why do I need to donate money to listen to public radio? That never happens in China. I thought to myself, given the radio is state-owned. In America, it’s different. In Pittsburgh, for instance, behind all these giant buildings named after early twentieth century tycoons, from library to concert hall, the organizations rely on public funding. When I open the program of Drue Heinz Lecture Series, there is always a page or more dedicated to the generous contributors. The museum programs too. Almost all the literature I took home from various attractions in America includes an honorary list and a form for donation.

Isn’t this a characteristic in the Capitalist world? Money, money, it’s all about money. After the rise of capitalism in China, we often say, “no money no talk.” The saying also applies to America. More funding, good service; poor funding, enterprise closes.

Before I came to America, I knew nothing about writing fundraising proposals. When I tell business people in America that I’m a writer now, their first association with my skill is almost always with writing fundraising proposal. “Being a good writer is important in the business world,” a business woman once said to me. “If you can write a good proposal to potential investors, you’ll do well in life.”

I take her advice to heart. I start to question myself if my MFA degree can feed me in the long run as well as being a professional writer for business. I, like the public radio stations, also need sponsors to continue my creative production. Is money really the generator of all humanities and science in our society? This is an important lesson I’ve learned during my education in America. Listening to Celine Dion’s The Power of Love on the radio, I have to ponder the power of fundraising.

Owning our Words

By Publius

Not long ago, my student teacher asked me, “What is the greatest change you’ve seen in the last ten or fifteen years?” My answer surprised me as much as it surprised her. I answered with a question. ‘When did testing become morally ambiguous?’

What follows is a small tract from an educator to my fellow teachers and administrators.

I am worried. I am worried that we don’t own our own words. I am worried that we belong to a profession that is acted upon rather than acting. Standardized testing is one example. I personally know of no teacher or administrator who feels that standardized testing, as it is practiced, is helpful. I know plenty who feel it is destructive.

I know many who feel standardization has, in fact, corrupted the profession. Jobs depend on scores. When we demand that a school increase a yearly test score by some impossible number, we don’t simply ask way too much of the school. We ask too much of human nature. Too much from a teacher with a kid in college. Too much from a principal with a mort-gage. As for the children, a colleague put it well when he referred to the state test as “just one more thing for a kid to fail.” When overwhelmed with anxiety, people will use every means to de-crease that anxiety, and, in this case, increase the test scores. But this is reactive. We don’t own the dialogue. We let others ask the questions, and, ultimately, dictate our very words.

A major part of the problem is that the classroom teachers, the building administrators, know full well that there are dozens of questions that aren’t even being asked, because we, the folks with the chalk dust under our fingernails, don’t own the dialogue. We know that there is no progress in the development of education. We know that there is no paradigm for looking into the future.

I would like to propose, to my colleagues, that we speak rather than being spoken about. I would like to propose a simple beginning, that we teachers, that we administrators, that we ask the questions, that we dictate the terms, that we initiate this dialogue.

A few premises. First, we stay with the questions, for truth is often found in the questioning rather than the answers. Second, acceptance — no blaming, no shaming. Third, no one is really innocent, and no one is really guilty. Certainly cheating on a stand-ardized test is corrupting. But then giving it unquestioningly is every bit as corrupting. “I was just following orders” has been the defense of much evil. And now, a few questions.


Is standardized testing ethical?

Does standardized testing do more harm than good?

Is it ethical to give such a test to all students without exception?

Is it ethical to refuse to give a standardized test?

Would such a refusal do more harm than good?

How does a teacher, or an administrator, evaluate the good or evil of such testing?

How does one evaluate one’s own participation in such testing?

If the test has little educational value, how does the teacher evaluate the giving of the test?

Is a test meaningful if its only meaning is accreditation for the school or district?

Is it ethical to unquestioningly give the test?

Is it ethical to give students the answers?

For the sake of the school or district, it is ethical to falsify the results?


These are by no means the only questions. But they are a start. As I said, we need to stay with the question, for truth is often found in the question. We, the teachers, the administrators, we need to own our own words; we, the teachers, the administrators, we need to initiate our own dialogue.


Homage to the Wolf

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I am shopping, as shopping is my forte, more so than writing, or so I think. I work the shop I’m in the way a criminal works a crime scene, the way my cousin, Gil, a three times felon, knows how to rob a bank, is behind bars, incarcerated, as I have been incarcerated, will be incarcerated again, behind the red line, the suicide proof windows in the psych ward, my home away from home, my little getaway.

I rifle through the clothing rack, run my fingers through different fabrics—silks, velvets, cashmere—listen to the tags rustle, fondle tender buttons. A red wool dress flies off the rack and I hustle it into the dressing room, my throne room, strip off my black beaded skirt, wrap sweater. The red dress slips onto to me like a prayer and I am reborn within its folds.

I glance in the mirror, am stung by my winced look, then step out of my throne room and go over to the jewelry case. I scan it with the eyes of a murderer over a gun case, tap the glass, say, “This, I want this.” The woman who assists me enslaves me—my wrists are handcuffed with bracelets and my neck is noosed by bright red Moroccan beads. I whip out my credit card and slap it on the counter, like one who only plays for keeps.

In the corner of my eyes, I glimpse a pair of green velvet boots embroidered with a cosmos of flowers. When I inquire, I’m told they are from Afghanistan, are hand done…

…and I am undone, put them on and yes, these boots are made for walking, so out the door I go to frolic in my new frock, walk in my boots made for walking. I clutch my shopping bag which holds the clothes I bought just yesterday, clothes that will be stuffed into my overstuffed closet and soon be forgotten, like things whispered at Mass.

Outside, the conundrum of autumn is happening. Cars more than cruise by, they nearly screech and I want to screech, too, in an octave above a scream, like the trained singer I am. I practice screeching in an octave above a scream whenever the madness hits, the horrific madness with jackhammers boring into my skull, or with my husband, Dr. Robert Wolff, eating the raw egg yolks scrambled inside my brain.

Autumn is happening—the life blood is leaving the leaves, cell by cell, and in perfect parallel, the life blood is leaving my marriage, also cell by cell and mine are fried, scrambled like my raw egg yolk brains. Autumn is happening—a steely chill descends from a steely sky—and I manage somehow to step in dog shit, a heap of dog shit that clings to the cosmos of flowers on my green velvet boots.

I panic, wonder how to get them clean, pull a tissue from my purse. I want to make a tissue flower for the Homecoming float where I once was Queen-for-a-Day, but I am not Queen-for-the-Day, any day, but in deep shit and confined to the inferior dungeon in my mind.

Somewhere my husband, Dr. Robert Wolff and his elderly father are cruising the streets,

as if in a stealth bomber, their shark eyes fixed on zeroing in on me. I am frantically trying to clean my boots, but now the shit is beneath my nails, smeared on my red wool dress, caught in my hair. Suddenly I remember—and remembering is done through the blood—my mother plastering me with shit because I pooped in my pants.

She has me pinned down in the windowless bathroom with my pants yanked down around my ankles. She is wearing yellow dish gloves, smears the shit on my face, my bare, bare flesh. Not a single word is uttered. This is her work in the world, to plaster me with shit, to sculpt me with it, be her masterpiece.

Now the stench of shit is all over me, even my breath is shitty and a car slows down behind me. I know it is the stealth bomber, the headlights are flashed which puts me in the gun sights of a trained assassin. I freeze in these headlights, but not like a deer, but a skunk who has just skunked itself.

The window on the passenger side slinks down and out comes Robert’s voice, ever commanding and damning. “Get in,” he says and so I do. I hunch down in my seat, buckle up for safety. My new dress immediately turns into a devil suit and straightjacket. My brains slop around in my head like the water in dear Henry’s bucket and there is a hole in that bucket, dear Henry, a hole in mine.

Autumn is happening, the chill descends from a steely sky and Robert is blasting the air conditioning because I stink to the high heavens. Robert knows all about shit, especially my shit as well as his elderly father’s shit because he constantly loses his bowels, has projectile diarrhea. Robert is both an expert in cleaning up his father’s shit and making sure I’m mired in mine.

We drive in the stealth bomber in stone age silence. From time to time, Robert’s shark eyes appear in the rear view mirror, then disappear. I am in the back seat, the way, way back seat. We pass by a prison and suddenly I believe my cousin, Gil, the three times felon, is locked up in the hole in that prison and I want to go to him, be locked up in that hole, too.

My finger, my trigger-happy finger, starts to lift the door latch. We are in heavy traffic and I want to play in traffic, so up goes the door latch a wee bit higher. I am sure the door is about to fly open and take me with it, when the automatic lock clicks closed. Poems close with a click, but this one is deadly, traps me in. Once again, the shark eyes appear in the rear view mirror, like those of a hammerhead and I feel that hammerhead ram me, again, again.

We pull into our dead end street. I dimly remember that this is the street I have lived on for nearly twenty years and stare at the house that I have also lived in for nearly twenty years, am sure it is one of the little boxes in Vasko Popa’s little box poems. In that little box where I have been boxed in for nearly twenty years, I want to toss an eyeball on a leash, an immigrant’s suitcase that has wings, the one I pack when going to the lock-up where I’m holed up in the hole, just like Gil.

I enter the little box like the lowly tenant that I am. Inside the little box are other little boxes. I strip off my skunk skin on one little box, scrub myself down to the bone in another, know that dem bones are gonna rise again because the foot bone is connected to the leg bone and the leg bone is connected to the hip bone which is my want bone, my cradle of scars.

In the little boxes that box me in, I pay homage to the wolf, Dr. Robert Wolff, by pinning my sterling wolf pin to my left breast. There is a sky inside that breast, a steely sky in which the chill descends and pinned to that sky is a wounded bird who sings like an angel on a funeral pyre.

Although I no longer pay homage to the wolf, that wounded bird still sings like an angel on a funeral pyre, but not in an octave above a scream. Rather her voice spreads like wildfire in a sky where autumn is happening, exquisitely so, while the choirs do cry for that lone wolf trapped inside his little box where, in quiet desperation, he gnaws his paw right down to the want bone, its cradle of scars.



by Publius

The big honker STATE TEST is coming up. So today, we had a brief meeting in which we were told, “Oh, and don’t worry about writing.”

To which the English Department collectively responded, “Huh?”

“Yea, don’t worry about writing.”

“I know I’m going regret asking,” I say, “But, ah, why?”

“The state is making a lot of cutbacks, so they fired all the people who grade the test. All that’s left are secretaries who run the scan-trons. Instead of writing, you need to concentrate on teaching how to bubble the scan-trons correctly.”

True story.

Weather Forecast

By Songyi Zhang

Whether in China or America, people care about the weather, and they talk about it endlessly . But what amazes me is how sophisticated the weather forecast is on the American TV news. With high technology, the background behind the meteorologist is far from a still picture. Just with a tip of a finger, the colorful weather map expands and flips, clouds and winds all moving like animation.

As in China, the American weather map is about as clear as mud —the isobars for air pressure, the letter and number indicators, the blue and red signs for the type and movement of air fronts… The only weather symbol I get is the bright red sun indicating a sunny day.

But American meteorologists talk a lot and in great detail, but some of the talk is not helpful.

Today’s weather report is more than only about hot or cold, wet or dry. There’s so much jargon in an American meteorologist’s prepared speech. One thing that I’m not comfortable with is the meteorologists usually speak fairly fast, like a gust of wind. How can they expect all the audience to understand what they say?

Seriously, for some people who have little knowledge about meteorology, they probably only understand if tomorrow is a sunny hot day or a rainy cool one. How can they comprehend the effect of the cold front from the north coming southwards at some wind speed, or that a sea level pressure will rise because of a strong turbulence of air at the coast?

However, the most difficult part of understanding a weather forecast for an immigrant is converting the temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius. I have only a vague concept about the Fahrenheit scale. Listening to the meteorologist, I try to remember why 97 degrees Fahrenheit is “boiling hot” (but it’s not!) as 97 degrees Celsius is close to the boiling point of water at 100 degrees Celsius.

More than half the world’s population uses the metric system. The United States is one of the few countries that still use the old British system. That certainly inconveniences foreign visitors and residents. If America is for globalization, unifying its measurements to the metric system should be on the top of the list.


Meet this Walmart Greeter

submitted by John Samuel Tieman

Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart, just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their “Older Person Friendly” policies.

One day the boss called him into the office for a talk.

“Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome.”

“Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it.”

“Well good, you are a team player. That’s what I like to hear.”

“Yes sir, I understand your concern and I’ll try harder.”

Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment, “It’s odd though your coming in late. I know you’re retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning so late and so often?”

The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled.

He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, “They usually saluted and said, ‘Good morning, Admiral, may I get your coffee, sir?’”



by Publius

I’ve been reviewing my standardized testing scores. They suck. Thank you, Sweet Jesus. By every indication, I teach in a low performing, ghetto school filled with poor whites, poor Blacks and dozens of disadvantaged immigrants. So my scores suck. My scores from my regular classes suck, and even my college credit kids did poorly. I’m relieved. I give a lot of standardized tests. Fortunately, I don’t give THE STATE TEST, in which we gained a gazillion points and scored 93%.

Educators around the country are in a panic. At last count, almost 200 educators in Atlanta were caught cheating on THE STATE TEST. There’s talk of indictments. These clowns had cheating parties, in which whole faculties changed answers on scantrons. Personally, I’m not shocked by the cheating. I am impressed by the chutzpah.

In truth, my school didn’t cheat on THE STATE TEST this year. We tried that last year. One guy just wrote the answers on the board, indicating also who would get what answers wrong. That drove our scores up so high that we had to have a huge increase in this year.

So this year, we didn’t cheat on the test. We just rigged who took it. And the state is fine with this. Indeed, it provided guidelines for fair and square cheating. In some districts, you can exclude kids you know will flunk the test. The school can exclude kids who flunked last year. You can exclude kids who are special ed., who don’t speak English, and you can exclude kids who don’t have 100% attendance. At a meeting, I asked if we could exclude kids whose feet can still be used for gripping. But a lot of this we just couldn’t use. First, 95% of our kids passed, because the central office decided we need a 95% graduation rate. Secondly, we often get 100% attendance from our future felons, because the parents don’t want the kid at home any more than we want the kid in our classroom. So that left the foot inspection. We stuffed special ed. classes to the max, and decided that a kid doesn’t speak English if that kid has a vaguely foreign sounding last name.

The Metropolitan School District is one step below full accreditation. Thus are there several other means used to measure the school besides THE STATE TEST scores. I just mentioned graduation rates. So this year, we had a 95% graduation rate. I presume the 5% who flunked were chosen by dart – put 100 names on a wall, take five darts, you get the rest. Then there’s college acceptance. Of our 95% graduates, 100% applied and were accepted into a college of their choice or not. The junior college has open admissions, so everyone, regardless of reluctance, ambivalence or even outright opposition, everyone applies and is accepted by the junior college. In cases where the kid refuses to apply, a counselor fills-in the application and just has the kid sign. This is considered perfectly acceptable by the state. There’s no follow-up. The kid just has to be accepted. Nobody cares if the kid attends.

The state provides us with all the previous tests. Oh, yea, and this year the state fired the folks who grade the test. Budgetary cut-backs. So all the kids have to do is bubble-in scantrons. No essays, no nothing that requires more than a minimum wage temp, one temp mind you, to feed one automatic grader machine with a hundred thousand scantrons.

So we cheated fair and square. And the state is just fine with this. They never question it. Indeed, a state pooh-bah signs-off on all this. The state wants all this gone as much as we want all this out of our lives. The state knows, just as districts know, that everyone is stuck with a political attempt to solve an educational problem, an attempt, however well intended initially, that has gone terribly wrong.

But, thanks to Atlanta, someone has got to hang. And if it wasn’t Atlanta, it would have been Boston. And if it wasn’t Boston, it would have been this one or that one.

So no doubt there’s a coming shit storm. And we’re talking projectile defecating. It’s not like it would be hard to discover cheating here. Even an inexperienced investigative reporter would question attendance, for example. One measure for the state accreditation is attendance. So, in the last few weeks of the academic year, everyone is marked present. Everyone. The whole district. Some of us turn in our attendance sheets first thing in the morning, before we even go to our classes. An inner city school district with 100% attendance for weeks on end. Really? That and our school scored 93% on THE STATE TEST. An investigative reporter wouldn’t have to look hard. Luckily for the Metropolitan School District, our newspaper doesn’t have many investigative reporters left, another institution that’s been gutted.

When did I ever think it would be in my best interest to shout from the school rooftop, “MY SCORES SUCK! Hey, look, my scores obviously — obviously — reflect that I teach in a low performing ghetto school. YOU JUST CAN’T FAKE THAT! … or, well, you can I guess, I guess if you can fake good scores, then you can fake bad, but I didn’t … AND I HAVE NEVER GIVEN THE STATE TEST! HONEST!”

When we demand that a school increase a yearly test score by some impossible number, we don’t simply ask way too much of the school. We ask too much of human nature. Too much from a teacher with a kid in Cornell. Too much from a principal with a mortgage. As for the children, a buddy put it well when he referred to such testing test as “just one more thing for a ghetto kid to fail.” When overwhelmed with anxiety, people will use every means to decrease the anxiety, and, in this case, increase the test scores.

Not long ago, a student teacher asked me, “What is the greatest change you’ve seen in the last ten or fifteen years?” My answer surprised me as much as it surprised her. I answered with a question. ‘When did testing become morally ambiguous?’


Tornado Country

By Elizabeth Kirschner 

My mother is on the sofa, arrayed on the sofa like a wretched lady-in-waiting, she has beached herself on the sofa for years and she is waiting for me, her daughter, to pay her homage, speak in psalms, bless her with my beauty, the very beauty she detests. The heavy curtains, like those in a puppet theatre, are drawn closed before sliding glass doors.

Somewhere outside it is summer, large blue puppets descend long blue hills and evening is introducing its mystery play, the puppets, the players who will shadowbox with shadows dense with shadowy souls.

My soul, dressed in such dressy shadows, mixes with my mother’s, its toxic brew and our strings twitch as we speak in voices low as a priest’s in the black coffin of the confessional. I want my mother to say, “We are of the earth’s and the earth is of us.”

I want my mother to say, “What takes the breath away, the wind will keep,” but her words have foghorns in them, weeping foghorns, and they are distant, few, created by the machinations of a brain so black, it is stained with soot.

“Canaries,” I say and she looks at me stupefied. Everything stupefies my mother—the tying of shoes, the fork and the spoon, even the solitaire she plays incessantly, the slap of the cards on the coffee table, the only music she can make on an earth that no longer wants her and never did.

“I love canaries,” I continue, “how they sing even when the hood is dropped, like that of an executioner’s, over their silver cages.” This pronouncement dumbfounds my mother and her eyes flounder like two drowned fish. I want to cup her face, its tarnished relic, in my hands, but if I touch her, she will flinch as if struck by a blow.

She who has played dead for decades is slowly dying. No one knows this but me, yet it is true—already her shadowy soul is tugging its way out of her, knot by knot. Already the River Styx flows in her flawed veins and I am here to ferry her away, assist her out of a body that is a robbed bank.

She does not know this. When she speaks, she does so in mono-syllables in a monotone and her breath carries the stench of burnt cinnamon. She cannot comprehend her own words—language is but a jinx, a bad hoax and when I remind her that I am a poet, she looks at me as if I have cursed.

“Too bad,” she says, then sighs a sigh raspy with wasps and the air we share is alit with stingers, the twitching of strings. Then I do it, that which I never thought I could do, I who have made a pilgrimage of a thousand miles full of a thousand demises to see a mother who despised me as a child and beat me with a meat hammer, the ping pong paddle, pummeled me with the bat signed by our neighbor, Whitey Ford—over the body of this woman who nobody could love, not even maggots or flies, I slowly, deliberately make the sign of the cross.

I have blessed her, am stricken with pity as she lifts her cocktail glass, stares at its gold fire as though it were the very spirit of her one and only God. I have blessed her even though her one and only God has not and she is melting like a paraffin angel. It is I who created the mold for my mother to become a paraffin angel, I who have deified the demonic only to watch her blood flowing with the River Styx be sucked up by the invisible straws in clouds.

“Clouds are cows,” I say and the only complexity left in my mother is her perplexity which she plays like a wild card, a trump. “Cows jump over the moon,” I continue as though telling a nursery rhyme to a young child while my own child is out there, somewhere in summer, playing with the large blue puppets, dancing in between their shadowboxings.

“I’ll box your ears,” she used to say, then assault me like a tyrant throwing a tantrum. Even her hair was the color of rage—black hair that matched the black masterpiece her black brain was so intent on creating and in her black book, she recorded my hoard of sins, both venal and cardinal.

“May peace be with you,” are my next words and there are no weeping foghorns in them, only the clarity of bells and we all know for whom the bells toll for. My mother looks stunned, is the bird who has flown into the window with a dull thud or the window has flown into her. A tear drools from her eye—she quickly wipes it away as if it were one of the flies or maggots that cannot love her because no one, absolutely no one can.

Except for me. She who raised her hand against me has been blessed, has had the sign of the cross made over her dilapidated body, a body only capable of last breaths and each of her last breaths wound me. That I will grieve over my mother overly and utterly too long, that I will become a slave of grief, succumb to it, be its numb drum as I was the numb drum for her riveting violence is something I will cherish, do cherish while she slowly perishes like fruit in dreamy heat.

 “Adieux,” I whisper in a barely there voice and somehow I am already diminished by the loss that looms before me of a mother who knew best and what she knew best was how to desecrate me. I hear her cells zoom out of her like tiny, black comets in a room that is still as the eye of a tornado and we are in tornado country with one skirmishing on the distant horizon. I love tornado country, how the sky turns green just before the cone hits and I remember the tornado drills we practiced in school. We hid under our desks or were herded into an underground corridor where we were made to pray.

Right now, I am one made to pray and I do so silently as I leave my mother, there on the sofa where she is a wretched lady-in-waiting who waits for death to wait on her hand and foot. As I leave my mother, I know I will never see her again as she is already more dead than alive. Leaving her is like leaving tornado country, yet in my mind’s eye, the eye of the tornado is God’s eye and with his tornado breath he will blow my mother into smithereens, wreak a path of holy destruction which I will go down, willingly, till I go down on bended knee.


Restaurant Review: Park Bruges

by Noah Gup

Just as independent stores and architecture make communities unique, neighborhood restaurants are essential for local flavor. These restaurants must not only offer likeable food, but also a homey and friendly ambiance. I grew up with a strong tradition of frequenting favorite restaurants, and their food gained a comforting familiarity, even an emotional attachment; my love for Eat’n’Park, however, has long since fled. Sibling to the Point Breeze gem Point Brugge Café, Park Bruges hopes to establish itself as a staple of Highland Park. With a slick take on comfort food and assistance from established Pittsburgh eateries, Park Bruges seems to fit the bill. But if Park Bruges hopes to attract those who live further than walking distance, inconsistencies in the menu must be straightened out.

Park Bruges works to make guests comfortable. With wooden tables and leather booths (not to mention its extensive beer menu), it is easy to get settled. Servers introduce themselves and the manager makes the rounds, checking on food and chatting with regulars. There are even a few tables outside which, besides the occasional roar of passing busses, are equally relaxing on a summer night. However, with consistent crowds, the interior can get equally noisy.

While offering an eclectic choice of appetizers, the frites are an absolute necessity. The frites at Park Bruges are thinner (dare I say crisper) than their counterparts at Point Brugge. Instead of being soaked in grease, the frites have a light crunch on the outside while still retaining moisture on the inside, making them among the best fries in Pittsburgh. When I heard Park Bruges offered poutine, I couldn’t have been more excited. My one Canadian poutine experience was like something out of a fever dream: a bowl of fries overflowing with gravy and globs of melting cheese curds. Park Bruges’ Montreal-style poutine is clearly less messy, but sacrifices much of the unholy joy of the original concoction. In order to get to the gravy, one must dig through the top shell of frites. Even more, the only perceivable flavor in the gravy was salt, lending only mushiness to the frites. An appetizer of Organic Phoenix Tofu was overwhelmed by its salty “soy-ginger sauce,” which tasted more like Kikkoman than anything else. One of Park Bruges’ specialties is the Tarte Flambée, a thinly crusted French/Alsatian pizza. Baked in Enrique Biscotti’s ovens, the light, crunch crust could be a great snack on its own. A tomato-herb topping for the pizza, similar to a caprese salad, was unfortunately drenched in olive oil. As far as appetizers go, sticking with the frites may be the most consistent choice.

While one of the highlights of Point Brugge Café is its mussels, Park Bruges may have its sibling beat. The mussels served in the Creole-style sauce are fantastic. The dish’s spicy tomato broth with peppers and lots of minced garlic gives the mussels a slight bite, while drizzles of bitter blue cheese balance the burn of the peppers. Even better, it is served with Allegro Hearth bread, perfect for sopping up the remaining sauce. Unfortunately, the other entrees pale in comparison to the Moules. The sauce on the Steak Frites tastes only salty, while julienne vegetables are only sad, flavorless slices, buried beneath fries. A daily special of breaded black cod with frites (a Park Bruges spin on fish’n’chips) faired much better. With a hearty cornmeal breading and no grease, the fish is delicately pan fried, again showcasing the chefs’ skills with frying. While a bed of creamed spinach adds only texture, an addictive mustard-mayonnaise dipping sauce compensates with more than enough flavor. Park Bruges also offers sandwiches, and the homemade Southwestern Veggie Burger is a surprise hit. Made with beans, peppers and spiced with cumin, then topped with a scorching poblano pepper sauce, the veggie burger is more complex than many of its meat counterparts. While Park Bruges serves dessert, a stomach full of frites forced me to decline.

Despite the problems riddled in Park Bruges’ menu, its welcoming atmosphere is difficult to resist. When I opened the door for the first time, I was greeted first with a wave of garlic, frites, polite chatter and the tap of forks on plates. I had never been here before, but I already felt at home.

(Park Bruges is located at 5801 Bryant Street in Pittsburgh. Entrees range from $8-$26.)


Paul Pollaro and the Peso Principle

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Encountering a Paul Pollaro painting fully takes both moments and years. It causes a brain chill, a tingle down the spine and is a highly tactile experience. I know this because I live with a Paul Pollaro painting and recently made a pilgrimage to where he lives and works near South Berwick, ME so we could talk and look and think. We did all three.

Paul began by talking about growing up with an artist father who created complex collages out of old paintings, ship canvases, in essence geological time layers. Referred to as “physical skins” whose sources remained mysterious, Paul’s paintings, as well, have many deep epidermal layers, a primitivism and density evocative of hides.

He brought me down to his studio, a room off the basement whose door had to be wrenched open with a hammer as it was stuck shut with paint and solvent. I took a picture of his work shoes which were plastered with paint to the degree that they looked bronzed, like prized baby shoes.

I can think of no other painter who is as physical as Paul Pollaro is and he himself noted that he is both “an artist and an athlete” when working. Paul manipulates his materials—he walks through his paintings, presses boards into them, linen, too, will even flip a canvas over, walk on it again, anything to find a way to a new detail. Conscious decisions fail for him as he is visceral, in his depths. Beginning with the arbitrary, Paul then finds relationships between space, tempo, things he couldn’t conceive of while corralling and directing it all. This, according to Paul is very “Id,” decadent and inside the Super-Ego.

Yet there is a profound desire for consistency, for the viewer to have an experience akin to picking up a rock only to discover a salamander, slimy and alive, or to witnessing a birth, also slimy, alive, and yes, primitive. We all must become, or so Paul hopes, Pre-historic, a being seeing a Wooly Mammoth for the first time. He wants his paintings to be like a beast in the room, or a tree stump. Most of his canvases are large 8’ by 6’ walls and Paul claims that people see everything except what drives them as he works with figurative imagery no one seems to get.

In other words, Paul Pollaro creates an abstraction out of an abstraction taken from the figurative to the point where he risks losing his audience. For him, the love and drive exists in the most private places and those private places hold the soul of his enthralling canvases.

Hence we come to his notion of PESO with “P” standing for Particularity, “E” for Engagement (i.e., that slimy salamander under the rock,) “S” for Simultaneity, which contains both exertion and privacy and “O” for Otherness, which is a deeply embedded insistence on how complex we are, that we are what we don’t create simply because the things that shape us most—the monster, the beast—are things we do not choose because they are scary and far from benign. For Paul, it was his mother’s cancer and who among us would choose or will for one’s mother to have cancer? Therein, another concept comes into play, “The Success of Failure” as no one willing chooses failure, but it does comprise us, it even deepens and directs our lives.

Paul also touched upon Joseph Campbell’s idea of “The Aesthetic Experience.” He talked about how when the mind sees a tree, it can’t possibly process all of its elements—the wind, the light, the sheer volume and quantity of leaves—and so, the brain must generalize. Paul insists we can and do have the capacity for “The Aesthetic Experience,” to be inside the moment as it unfolds its finite infinity like a Jacob’s Ladder.

Paul himself described one such experience. He was on a tour with a Lamaze class when the guide suddenly pointed he wanted the group to see. Paul watched every head turn, each slightly differently in a strange, particular way in a single moment. To him, it was like looking at a bunch of Praying Mantises. I, too, saw those heads turn like nearly reptilian insects.

PESO. “The Aesthetic Experience.” Paul Pollaro wants his audience to look closely, to see how many granules there are in one inch of canvas. Multiply that inch till it creates an 8’ by 6’ wall. Think about the moment when the spark travels from the stick of its origin, how a grass bowl can be both grass and bowl, how an image can appear in primordial mud, the birth, the beast and tree stump, of making tools out of earth and water and you might begin to imagine the magnificent and complex magnitude that exists in one Paul Pollaro painting where to see is to be brought into heightened perceptibility so exquisite, it is nearly excruciating.

Artist Bio:

Paul Pollaro was born in Brooklyn, NY, received his MFA from Indiana University, has had many gallery affiliations and exhibitions, including one person shows at Aucociso Gallery in Portland, ME, Soprafina in Boston, MA and Nahcotta in Portsmouth, NH. Once a Maine resident he now lives and works in Rollingsford, NH.



by Emily Cerrone

I hate taking out the trash. Not in the same way that I hate doing a sink full of hot dishes on a stifling summer afternoon. It makes me sick—literally sick. Smells of rotting meat and coffee grounds are no match for the odor reducing garbage bags. At the smell, I can feel my face drain of color, as sweat beads on my forehead. Doubled over, I dry heave next to the garbage dumpster.

Walking into the GalleriE CHIZ on Ellsworth Ave, to visit Lori Hornell’s exhibition, “Stuff and Nonsense,” I discovered Lori has a different view of trash. For Lori, everything has possibility; nothing is trash. She is not revolted by the remains of last night’s dinner. She finds a second life for everything. Instead of throwing away paint brushes—tiny clumps of paint still clinging to the abused bristles—or last week’s Sunday paper, she makes them into pieces of art. Pieces of antique dolls find their way into balls of newspaper or on top of a body made from computer chips, emory boards, and folded paper. Old tomato cages and pieces of wire become artistic representations of looms. Lori manages to weave pieces of normally discarded material—seemingly unrelated—into pieces of art.

Instead of forcing the lid down on a garbage can as pasta boxes and broken hangers push for freedom, Lori liberates discarded items. She allows for their reincarnation. She does not push for the items to be something their not. If a hat does not seem to fit onto a head and seems to look more like a skirt, Lori makes it into a skirt. Nothing is forced into the confines of garbage. She gives them the freedom to become something different. As Lori says, “clutter has a mind of its own.” The trash is alive.

Humor can be found in many things, and trash is not an exception. A piece entitled “Funnybones,” depicts pieces of chicken bones wrapped in brightly colored comic strips. I even imagine Lori snatching away a sock or tissue box that would be destined for the trash, spiriting it away to her worktable. In my mind, she is like a crusader, rescuing holy relics. She braves the garbage, saving junk from its fate. I am the cowardly servant, not prepared for the fight. I drop the garbage in the dumpster, and the door slams to my house. I am safe.

Where I see revulsion, Lori sees a chance to laugh; where I see pieces of meaningless junk, Lori sees the potential for creativity and expression. I look at her art and wonder how many used tea bags and empty pens I’ve thrown away. How many items and ideas I’ve automatically dismissed as broken. How many times have I put the lid on the garbage before giving it a second chance?

Letter from Publius

Hey Simms,
I know what you mean about my painting a terrifying picture of teaching in a public school. I’m mindful of how, when he was on his deathbed, Marco Polo was asked if all those stories were true. “I haven’t written down half of what I’ve seen,” he said. I’ve written what is entertaining and exciting. It’s difficult to write about the days that are simply enervating, the assaults upon the soul that are simply humiliating.

That said, you shouldn’t think that there are no rewards. I’m making 60 – 70K (I’d have to check with my beloved accountant for the exact number.) I have a health plan, dentist, all that. I have a pension, and I have tenure. And when I look at the unemployment figures, well, be it ever so humble, there’s no tenure like your own. But, as far as the blog goes, where are the laughs in getting tenure?

A lot of folks don’t see the small victories. The other day I run into a kid I taught in 7th grade. She’s working as a cashier in a cafeteria at Wash. U.. When I see her, the first thing we do is catch up on who’s been shot, and who’s in jail. Then she tells me how, when she’s not working, she’s going to the junior college, and getting her license in cosmetology. After that, she’s going to get a degree in business, and open her own shop. And this, Mike, this is a victory. It’s a victory now only for Brittany, but for her children, and her children’s children. Why? Because she’s getting out of the ghetto, and into the lower middle class. Her daughter will go to the state university. And, with God’s good grace, it’s her granddaughter will go to Stanford. And while I didn’t build the edifice that is Brittany’s life, I mixed some of the cement. As for me — these small victories — I think these are some of the finest things I’ve ever done with my life.


By Songyi Zhang

In most cases, I find the customer service in America to be way behind China. Many stores here are understaffed; which means customers have to depend on themselves. While I was frustrated about whom to ask for help at Macy’s, I got marvelous service at American banks.

As soon as I walk into a branch, the receptionist and the security guard both greet me. A simple “How’re you doing today” recognizes and respects my presence. If I have questions about banking, I’ll be able to talk to a salesperson individually within a second. We’d sit down in a cubicle and discuss financial matters as if we were friends.

How can I get such private service without charge in China? If I were not a big customer, say an investor or a representative of a firm, I don’t have the opportunity to sit down and talk to a salesperson in a Chinese bank.

The American bank salespersons are usually patient, informative and friendly. I can tell they are well-trained and value customers first. I can trust them immediately because of their sincerity.

Due to cultural differences, Chinese tend to save money in their banks whether or not they are paid interest. But in America, I might be considered dumb if I only save money but do not invest it. More Americans tell me that American banks give low interest for deposits. I know. That’s why American banks often introduce customers to their various financial programs.

One difference from China is that American society accepts checks and credit cards and many other types of payments other than cash. It’s really a free market. Online banking is popular. In China, checks are not accepted and payment by credit cards and online banking has just started.

Frankly, a majority of Chinese are still used to using only cash. Weak security has defeated Chinese people’s confidence about Do-It-Yourself banking. As a result, lots of older Chinese and migrant workers would rather do banking in person over the counter. My mom was one of them. For years, she refused to learn how to use an ATM machine.

That explains why Chinese banks are always filled with people. A long queue is formed an hour before the bank opens. On the contrary, it always surprises me how fast the on-counter service is in an American bank. The lines are shorter and fewer than those in Chinese banks. And drive-in banking is a new thing to me. A visit to a major Chinese bank may take at least two hours if you are lucky. I used to bring a thick novel to kill time in the bank. In the US, however, waiting is no more than fifteen minutes.

Just as my feet step out of the doors of the bank, the security guard and the receptionist greet me again, “Have a nice day!”

In China, on the other hand, no one in the bank cares whether you are there.


Theatre Review: King Hedley II by August Wilson

Reviewed by Kayla Washko

King Hedley II. By August Wilson. Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Ben Cain, Tyla Abercrumbie, Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Jonas Chaney, and Leslie “Ezra” Smith. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in association with August Wilson Center for African American Culture. 980 Liberty Avenue Pittsburgh, PA.

Often described as the darkest play of Wilson’s twentieth-century cycle, King Hedley II is set in the Hill District section of Pittsburgh in the 1980s. The story of one family’s struggle for understanding and identity, it is the eighth play that Wilson wrote, and the only to pick up with characters and conflicts introduced earlier in the cycle (Seven Guitars).

The play has a single setting—the backyard of King’s family home where he, his wife Tonya, and his mother Ruby, live. The set consists of two dilapidated brick houses, the land surrounding them littered with an old rubber tire and other debris. At the play’s opening, King is planting seeds in a plot of bad soil, an act which quickly becomes a metaphor for his frustrated attempts to escape the stigma of his murder sentence and subsequent stint in jail. Now, King clings to hopes of building a better life for himself and his pregnant wife. Tensions rise with a surprise visit from Elmore, the smooth-talking, long-time suitor of Ruby, as well as an announcement from newspaper-hoarding next-door-neighbor Stool Pigeon: Aunt Ester, the 366-year-old spirit guide (she’s as old as slavery in the United States), has died, leaving the community without a moral compass.

The stakes are high from beginning to end, the characters plagued with existential questions about identity, family, justice, and retribution. Ben Cain gives a stunning performance as King, the father-to-be trying to lift himself above the physical violence and moral transgressions that “mark” him. Chrystal Bates is both hilarious and heartbreaking as King’s mother, Ruby, a washed-up road singer with a troubled romantic history.

Staging presents a challenge in any of Wilson’s plays, which are rich with character development and dialogue rather than action. King Hedley II is monologue-heavy, but this is well-handled by the performers, especially Cain and Tyla Abercrumbie (Tonya), who deliver their speeches with rawness and honesty.

As with many of Wilson’s plays, King Hedley II forces audiences to consider how external pressures and tensions often wind up—tragically—when they are played out inside the family home. For while the conflicts of King Hedley II are often rooted in white hegemony—King’s outrage about everything from the legal system to sales receipts—the real tragedy here is that of a family troubled by the past, destroyed by pride.

For those interested in further study of August Wilson’s plays, the Center holds a monthly reading round table. More information can be found here:


Sailing While Anchored

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Robert and I are at Cold Spring Park. November has stepped into the dressing rooms of the poor, their cold parlors, cold hearths which are cathedrals for the dispossessed. The sky, hard as a chestnut, is one such cathedral and my lips silently move in prayer to the small god of my misunderstanding.

The only small god I do understand is my baby boy whose room is a spring sanctuary full of spongy undergrowth. We have left him in Rosa’s care with the tiny sacks of breast milk I pumped earlier in the day. Rosa is from Venezuela, crossed the border by wading through the muddy Rio with her son on her back while under gunfire.

There is no gunfire in Cold Spring Park, but the wind, like an insurgent, charges in. Robert and I have just had supper out. Such evenings are rare—a gold coin we are afraid to touch, let alone pass between us. The hard sky has been slugged by darkness and the moon has a desolate heart, an abandoned one. The trees assume melancholy poses snagged with empty nests stuffed with dead leaves like brown, rusty crowns.

Already my home, the one my baby, Dylan, was conceived in, feels like one such empty nest save for the plural presences, which I dare not call angels, who flock around his crib. Wing palpitations match his heart palpitations and there is a soft shuffling of bare feet, a courtly dance to court him—all infants are of royalty even if they do not come from it.

In my hierarchy, I toe the lowest rung. In Robert’s, he is above me and try as I might I cannot climb the silken ladder out of the cemetery of self. We are parked on a circular drive in Cold Spring Park. It goes around a towering oak, a grandiose oak with many, many wounds. They are black as the black night and I want to wrap gauze around them, dress them up. Instead bits of toilet paper cling to the lower branches like the dirty underthings of fallen angels.

At this moment, most moments, I feel like a fallen angel and she has fallen from lesser grace to no grace at all. Robert and I sit in the car as if locked in a standoff, staring at the ground surrounding that grandiose oak. Long white feathers, hundreds of long, white feathers have been stuck in that ground. Who, I wonder, had so painstakingly planted them, one by one? This, too—shouldn’t we all plant feathers as talisman’s of who we might become?

I reach over, touch one of Robert’s hands which are at ten and two on the steering wheel like the hands of a clock. On my clock, the hands, as well, are frozen at ten and two in my arrested childhood. Ten and two, two and ten. In between, there lies a girl in an icy chrysalis. In each hand, memory’s hand grenade which will not go off for decades.

When I touch Robert, he remains still as if mesmerized by the island of feathers and I am sailing around that island, sailing while anchored. I move over, start kissing him, wanting him. I caress his cheeks, their high, cool bones. I smooth his hair, try to pull him near, but he keeps his hands on the steering wheel at ten and two, does not glance my way.

In that moment, I am pierced by the long and elegant bones of those hundreds upon hundreds of feathers. They are ivory arrows in my Sebastian heart, but I am no saint, only a poor sinner in the cold parlors of November. No fire roars in the cathedral of its black hearth. Only the ashes murmur, ashes soft as feathers, many feathers.

Ah but for their lean and elegant bones which go right through me. Once again, I wonder about the anonymous one who planted all these feathers around the lonely, grandiose oak, the tree of many wounds, mortal wounds.

A thought flies into my brain: even with all these lordly feathers on this little patch of earth, the island can’t fly. I realize I am that island forbidden to fly by the anonymous one who could be the small god of my misunderstanding. Hence, my sentence to sail while anchored.

I finger my wedding ring, a gold band with the tree of life etched in it. I’m also wearing a dress with a coral tree of life silk-screened on to the front panel. Does this make me the tree of many wounds, wounds that gape open, each a black paradise or living gargoyle? I start making wild bird noises, they up-flutter in dry heave after heave. Robert remains quiet, turns the car on, drives home.

I go into my baby’s room, remember a line I once wrote about wild birds in the aviary of the mind. Mine are desperate for sanctuary, find it in Dylan’s room with its spongy undergrowth, plural presences flocking around the crib.

I quietly close the door, release the long shush of a breath. There, in the baby blue light shed by the nightlight, lies my sleeping son. His hands, soft as peaches, are cupped to his ears, intent on listening to who he might be. I bend over, scoop him up, go to his rocking chair where love tips into fear then back again. Currents of his dream go into me like rounds of musical moonlight.

His candled warmth infuses me with an ambrosial aura. I sing to him as we gently rock. This moment, like so many with Dylan, is pinnacle, a piece of heavenly peace on a very silent night. He is my refuge, I am his safe harbor and with him and him alone, can I truly sail while anchored. My soul, adorned with all those lordly feathers, takes flight as does my baby boy’s. We make a little music as we move and I am moved by it. No one, no one else at all, can hear this music which comes out of us in warm wands of breath.

I stay in Dylan’s room all night. As dawn slowly rolls in on its rosy hinges, he opens his eyes, smiles a sweet, sweet smile. I nurse him till he is sated, till his eyes roll up in his head although he were drunk on breast milk. Over breakfast, Robert is a rock, reads the paper as he does every morning.

It will take days to warm him up again and not long after our visit to the island that couldn’t fly, he will take to sleeping in the basement on more nights than I can count. The conjugal bed, the marital bed will become the flightless island around which I try to sail, but fail, while anchored. There among the silence of feathers, many feathers in the cathedral of the dispossessed, I will remain a poor sinner, lips silently moving in prayer.